Imagine there is a heaven—it’s easy if you try.
That may not be the way John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote the song, but in a way we can’t blame them; Lennon and Ono were merely people constrained by the view of a modern age.
Today we tell our children, “just use your imagination,” in a way that betrays our dismissive attitude toward imagination. And why not? Imagination is not deep thinking, it is fantasy—a faerie romance that serious people, especially Christians, need not spend much time on.
Countercultural icons like Lennon and Ono embraced the concept of imagination because it gave them the freedom to paint a picture of something that cannot exist in our world. In doing so, imagination of this kind reached the end of the line.
There is more to imagination than fantasy. In fact, the church and its theology need imagination more than ever in the history of our world. Yet, as theologian Kevin Vanhoozer notes, we suffer today from “imaginative malnutrition.”
What is imagination? And why does the church and its theology starve for it today?
Imagination in the Bible
Imagination is not something that comes readily to mind when we open our Bibles. Before prescribing a hearty diet of imagination, some may say, “The Bible is about real things—faith, love, sacrifice—not idle human pursuits such as imagination.” Others may wonder, “Doesn’t the Bible speak negatively of imagination in a few places?”
Does the Bible talk about imagination? Not in any modern English version. But that’s only half the story.
In all English versions, the word “imagination” only shows up notably in the King James Version (Genesis 6:5; Psalm 2:1; Romans 1:21), as well as in Bibles from that time period such as the Bishop’s Bible (1568). The word does not occur in Wycliffe’s Bible, the earliest English translation of the Bible from the late 14th century. And it doesn’t occur in modern English translations after the King James Version, created in the early 17th century.
Before we look down on the King James Version, Luther’s translation of the Bible into German in the mid-16th century also contains a word close in sense to our word imagination. All of these versions occur in a close time period. Confusion or conspiracy?
The meaning of imagination was changing. The Luther Bible, the Bishop’s Bible, and the King James Version came about in an age where the winds of philosophical change had blown. Swept away were the ideas held by Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus that undoubtedly influenced the thoughts of John Wycliffe; these new English versions were birthed in the age that produced the likes of Francis Bacon and René Descartes. Their perception of how people interacted with the world was brand new.
Francis Bacon, writing around the time as the King James Version, is indicative of this shift. Bacon believed that our imagination is tied to and limited by the physical senses—what we see, touch, and taste. But imagination is a “pleasure of the mind” in Bacon’s words; it occurs when the mind links senses and experiences in a way not in the order of the natural world. And what does Bacon believe links our senses and experiences correctly ordered? Reason.
In Paul’s powerful opening to his letter to the church in Rome, he explains how the invisible attributes of God are visible in the natural world, if people cared to look. Instead, people “became vain in their imaginations” as the KJV renders it. In early 17th century lingo: People chose to perceive the world through the falsity of imagination instead of the truth of reason.
John Lennon, welcome to the 17th century.
From there, Descartes created further separation between imagination and reason. In the 18th century, David Hume argued that unreasoned and unprovable ideas are fictions of the imagination. And by the 19th century, William James directly equates imagination with fantasy, which is why when my daughter Violet brings me her finely wrought colored scribbles, I pat her on the head and pronounce for all to hear that she has a “good imagination.”
Crafting and Conceiving
There’s more to imagination than mere fantasy. What Hume doesn’t grasp is what Plato already understood.
Plato may be the oldest philosopher in the Western tradition to reflect at length on imagination. He believed there were three instances of imagination that intruded on the minds of people. In one sense imagination is the ability to conceive new ideas out of old material. This is close to what we today call fantasy. When a great writer imagines faraway planets, she is conceiving of new worlds and new civilizations, but only in such a way as it relates to our old world and old civilization here on earth. It is new, but only to a degree.
In a second sense, Plato found that imagination is the ability to craft old ideas into new ideas. This is what we today might call “reconceptualizing.” When a great writer imagines a contemporary person loving others who are political enemies, he is crafting a new way of living, but only in such a way that is faithful and true to the original idea (Matt. 5:44).
This second type of imagination is what we long to return to—finding old truth in new expressions. It is what the modern master of true imagination J. R. R. Tolkien calls “the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.” It is the power to explain truth that defies simple explanation. Another master, Jesus, does this with his parables.
Let me give you a simple experiment you can try for yourself: Go and tell someone today why you chose to follow Jesus. It’s a very old idea, and you will need to tap into your imagination to make it fresh for your audience.
Let’s revisit the question: Does the Bible talk about imagination? Yes, it does.
John the Evangelist was an accomplished storyteller. His two main books, a gospel and an apocalypse, have attracted untold readers for two millennia. He natively understood what scriptwriters today tell their students: “Show, don’t tell.”
John didn’t write about imagination—he imagined God’s engagement and invited us to be a part of it. Toward the end of his gospel, John recounts Jesus’ personal vision of the future for John and Peter. One to death and one to life. These are images that only become clear when lived out in close obedience and faithfulness to God. John and Peter are really no different from you and me—disciples who follow “the same yesterday and today and forever” truth of God in a brand new direction in their unique time and place (Heb. 13:7).
Jesus also didn’t speak about imagination—knowing God’s message, he applied imagination and taught it to his disciples. Jesus’ parables use both types of imagination to make his descriptions of God’s work more real than any reality any human can know. The kingdom of heaven? Human empiricism and rationalism are of little value here, but we hear the words of Jesus and know the kingdom is like a grain of a mustard seed. Even if we have never held a mustard seed in our hand, we get a glimpse of the kingdom by tapping into Jesus’ imagination.
From prophecy to apocalypse, from parable to origin story, the Bible speaks in a language brimming with imagination. For those with imaginations, let them imagine.
Back to Plato: There is a third instance of imagination, rarely discussed. Plato makes this remarkable admission: In “moments of ecstatic vision, the imagination becomes the privileged recipient of divine inspiration.” When God illuminates, we imagine.
We get a sense for what Plato means when we read the weird parts of the Bible—the prophetic and the apocalyptic. If we are tempted to think of John’s apocalypse as merely a kind of fantasy, we misunderstand it completely. Instead, it is exactly what Plato anticipated: a vision birthed of divine inspiration. Arguably, it is the most truly imaginative—in all senses of the word—work ever created.
The history of human philosophy from Plato to William James teaches us this: Imagination, rightly understood, is a way of knowing—it sits between our senses, our experiences, our memory, and our heart, our intellect, our will. In order for us to know God well, and know our world well, we must engage our imaginations to inform our thinking and our actions.
Where Imagination is Needed Most
We live in a world saturated with imagination—imagination of the fantasy sort. From virtual reality to sociopolitical echo chambers, we are awash in continual fantasies created by the world around us.
Many critical issues we face today are of the same form as those faced by previous generations of Christians: worshipping God effectively, loving our neighbors, living justly, building healthy family relationships, and making disciples. By using imagination, the church can develop a fresh voice on these issues while staying true to the cumulative wisdom of Scripture and the church over the last two millennia.
Is there a limit to the call to be imaginative? Yes. A fresh voice does not mean a new voice. Instead, it means using well the two types of imagination that we already see in use in the Bible: taking up old truth in new forms and living in a fresh way under the power of God’s Spirit.
Yet we face a world today that is accelerating away from the familiar issues faced by generations past. Science and technology bring a brave new world that requires a brave new Christians witness.
Should we use new technology such as a gene drive to cause the extinction of anopheles gambiae, a malaria-carrying mosquito species? Should we cause the de-extinction of woolly mammoths, and let those and other species repopulate the earth?
Should we edit the genes of babies, changing the human species? Should we self-edit our own genes, changing who we are? Should we alter the physical makeup of our bodies to become faster, smarter, more beautiful, more female, more male, more amphibian, more not?
“It is our responsibility to engage in theological exploration of such imagined future,” contends theologian Karen O’Donnell, “as part of our service to the public, both in the ecclesial community, and beyond.”
To paraphrase Plato, we are best equipped to speak wisdom to these new challenges through moments of Holy Spirit illumination, during which our imagination becomes the privileged recipient of divine inspiration. And to paraphrase Tolkien, imagination gives us the power to bring the creations of human fantasy in line with the inner consistency of divine reality.
Let’s look at an example: When we read about people biohacking their bodies, it is easy for us to engage our imagination—in Plato’s first sense, imagination as fantasy. We imagine a fantasy of what biohacking is, and we come to a conclusion about it. If so, we have only used the least important part of our imagination. What we want to do is engage the other two more important parts of our imagination: reconceptualizing the eternal truth of God’s message to people about what it means to be human in a new way, and awaiting a moment of inspiration from God’s Spirit to show us what biohacking might look like within the reality Scripture imagines.
As a result of the Enlightenment, we have expected God to inspire us only through our reason and our experiences. When we take off these filters, and we read the parables of Jesus, the writings of John—in fact, much of the Bible—we begin to see that God wants to inspire our imaginations as well. When our imaginations are infused by the Spirit of God, we better see who God is and the challenges of the world around us.
With holy imaginations, we can see heaven—it’s easy if we try.
Douglas Estes is associate professor of New Testament and practical theology at South University. He is the editor of Didaktikos, and his latest book is Braving the Future: Christian Faith in a World of Limitless Tech.
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